Sofia Coppola made history last month- she was the first woman since 1961 to win the prestigious Best Director Award at Cannes. She won the award for her latest film The Beguiled, which stars Kirsten Dunst, Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell and focuses on an all-female boarding school during the American civil war. Her debut film, The Virgin Suicides, also starred Dunst and is considered one of Coppola’s best films, despite it being her first. After the film was made, Dunst and Coppola continued working together, resulting in an 18-year actor/director collaboration. The Virgin Suicides however remains Coppola’s masterpiece and one of the most significant films of the ‘90s due to its dreamy cinematography and raw, often uncomfortable, exploration of taboo subjects such as suicide.
Each of Coppola’s films radiate with a femininity that is rarely seen in cinema as she is one of the few prominent female directors working in Hollywood. Undoubtedly, Coppola’s career has been tinged with sexism from the very beginning. Working in the male-dominated world of film, she has repeatedly been a target for unfair criticism. Fellow filmmaker Vincent Gallo once claimed that she ‘likes any guy who has what she wants. If she wants to be a photographer she’ll fuck a photographer. If she wants to be a filmmaker, she’ll fuck a filmmaker.’ His comments most likely refer to her 9-year marriage to fellow director Spike Jonze. Gallo’s scathing comments reflect the treatment of her as a filmmaker and the lack of respect she often receives. It is difficult to imagine the same being said about a male counterpart.
However, her work has not escaped controversy. Her most famous film, Lost in Translation, was criticised for its depiction of Japanese natives and she has been repeatedly lambasted for the lack of diversity in her films. Her latest film, The Beguiled, which is based on the 1966 novel by Thomas P. Cullinan and is set in the American Civil War, has been criticised for focusing on ‘rich white women.’ Whilst it is undeniable that all filmmakers should make much more of an effort to embrace diversity, it is unfair to criticise Coppola alone; the majority of cinema’s most iconic directors – Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Stanley Kubrick, Tim Burton for example – all have had mostly white, male casts in their films. This month, Elizabeth Banks openly criticised Steven Spielberg over the lack of female leads in his films, only to apologise days later– it is worth noting that of his 31 films, only 3 have a female lead. Coppola’s films usually have a female lead, with only 2 of her 7 films featuring a male lead.
There is also a sense that Coppola is scrutinised more heavily because her father, Francis Ford Coppola, was a renowned director. Many reduce her talent as nepotism- but Hollywood is rife with nepotism. Many famous actors and actresses’ parents worked in the film industry, including the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., and Drew Barrymore. It is unfitting to say Coppola is successful because of her father- it is because of her talent as a film maker.
Her debut film, The Virgin Suicides, is a masterpiece in melancholy. The film bluntly explores subjects such as suicide, sex and youthful femininity, whilst also being a Sylvia Plath-esque journey into the female adolescence in suburban Middle America. The film’s visuals and cinematography is striking- the opening credits appear handwritten across the screen, like pages from a teenage diary. The film follows the lives of the five Lisbon sisters, imprisoned by their highly-strung parents and forbidden to socialise with the opposite gender. They are a source of unrelenting fascination to the neighbourhood boys, who obsess over the sisters, analysing every detail they can find. When the youngest sister commits suicide at the beginning of the film, the remaining sisters’ lives are thrown into disarray. The film has the capacity to resonate with a female audience of any age- the girls’ bedrooms are suffocating girly and impersonal, their bathroom overflowing with makeup and tampons. These are just some of the details a female director may emphasise that a male director may miss, simply because they will have experienced it themselves.
The Virgin Suicides is overwhelmingly relatable, which can make it an uncomfortable watch- whether it is the depression Cecilia feels, which is shrugged off as teen angst or the self-destructive behaviours exhibited by Lux. The cast actually looks like the ages they are playing, which emphasizes the relatability of the film. The film is also oddly poetic and poignant, highlighted by the dream-like cinematography. In one scene, Lux loses her virginity in the school field to the school’s heartthrob Trip. When she wakes up, she is completely alone. Trip explains that he ‘didn’t care how she got home… I liked her a lot. But out there on the field… it was just different then.’ They never see each other again and the scene is reminiscent of many young women’s first heartbreak. She was also left in a scenario that too many women would be a nightmare; vulnerable and alone at night. Lux returns home and is met with more hostility, this time from her hysterical parents. She begins to become more promiscuous, sleeping with random men on the roof of her house, perhaps in an attempt to find the tenderness Trip didn’t give her.
The film ends in tragedy, with many questions left unanswered, much like the nature of suicide. The boys spent so much time observing and analysing the girls that they no longer see them as people, but projected images of their desires, perfect in every way. If the girls didn’t have to live up to such rigid expectations of femininity, perhaps the tragedy could have been averted. It could be argued that the film glamorises suicide, however this is an issue that will arise whenever a film or series approaches the subject of suicide as it is such a difficult topic to discuss. However, the film remains one of the most unique and underrated films of the ‘90s. The film is an example of how a feminine approach to filmmaking can result in a masterpiece, transcending the usual ‘chick-flick’ archetypes.
The Virgin Suicides is currently available to watch on Netflix.